Archive for August, 2013

August 10, 2013

Winter: Adam Gopnik

by Andre

Adam Gopnik WINTER“Winter is coming,” as the Starks say in A Game of Thrones. It may not be uppermost in our minds during this balmy August, but New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s wonderful, wide-ranging meditation on winter will prepare you for the diminishing December days by stirring an appreciation of our 19th century taming of the season, which went from “being seen as bleak and bitter to sweet and sublime”. Raised in Canada, the essayist knows what a real winter means; his subject is also an excuse to introduce us to ice hockey – a “dross of brutal messiness” in John Updike’s phrase – and its emergence in Montreal.

Gopnik glides through a variety of aspects of the season with all the grace of Goethe on his ice skates (an engraving shows the German poet looking smug on the ice in the 1850s, when the pastime became “essentially social and overtly sexual” according to Gopnik). And while Germans such as the artist Friedrich are credited with transforming winter in our imagination through a “Romantic resistance to the Enlightenment idea of reason”, it’s heartening to see that the British played a part in everything from early ice skating (Pepys writes of this “very pretty art” in 1662) and fashionable Alpine holidays to stiff-upper-lip polar expeditions and, in the 1830s, even central heating. “North Americans who have spent a winter in England and who, clutching teacups and shivering in shaggy sweaters, wonder if they will ever be warm again, may find it hard to believe that this was the first warm modern place,” writes Gopnik.

He’s also good on the “ambiguous festival” that is the Dickensian Christmas and the clamour for the festive season to be less commercial, which is nothing new: US newspapers have been calling for Christmas to be “dematerialized” since the 1880s.

August 4, 2013

The Lowest Heaven, Memory Palace

by Andre

LH_PB_7Hari Kunzru MEMORY PALACE

We’re used to book tie-ins for films, TV shows and grasping celebrities but fiction inspired by an exhibition is a more engaging combination. Alongside Hari Kunzru’s dystopian Memory Palace, written as part of a new V&A exhibition, there’s The Lowest Heaven, a science fiction anthology to coincide with Visions of the Universe at the National Maritime Museum (until 15 September).

If you’re enraptured by photographs of nebulae and Martian landscapes, it’s well worth a trip to Greenwich. And the collection of stories, each themed around a body in the Solar System with an accompanying image from the Royal Observatory collection, is a rich assortment of contemporary SF set in our little corner of the universe. The Lowest Heaven ranges in style and subject from space colonising and voyaging to more psychological and fantastical treatments, taking in obvious planetary neighbours as well as dwarf planet Ceres (Saga’s Children by E.J. Swift), the Voyager 1 explorer (James Smythe’s The Grand Tour) and Jupiter’s moon Europa (imagined as the plaything of an oligarch obsessed with Roman antiquity in the epic escapism of Magnus Lucretius, by Mark Charan Newton).

Golden Apple by Sophia McDougall contains the majesty of the Sun within a devastating, domestic drama; Jon Courtenay Grimwood riffs on the paranoia of Philip K. Dick in The Jupiter Files; and Adam Roberts essays a proto-Wellsian lunar adventure of derring-do in the 18th century that demonstrates a facility for amusing, gentlemanly dialogue. Even the more ‘traditional’ SF spacefaring has a dizzying quality, from Alastair Reynolds’s cyborg artist colony on Mercury to WWBD by Simon Morden, a murky mission to Mars that’s haunted by the ghost of Ray Bradbury. It’s a story that makes you want to seek out more of Morden’s work; in fact, that’s an imperative that might apply to several authors in The Lowest Heaven (edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin). Only a few irritating typos intrude on the wonderment experienced on this absorbing literary journey through our Solar System.